Writers faced with the horror of staring at a blank page might at least be comforted if their writing app is Ulysses, because it’s beautiful to behold. Ulysses, which is for Mac and iOS only, helps writers focus on their writing by providing a minimal experience. It’s not the app for you if you like hand-holding and a lot of buttons and menus in your interface. Rather it’s for those who believe that less is more. It’s an Editors’ Choice among software for writers.
What Ulysses doesn’t offer is a prescriptive experience. For example, it offers plenty of tools for organizing your writing, but it doesn’t tell you how to sort the various drafts of your novel, nor does it tell you that you need a title page, contents page, foreword, and so forth. For that kind of hand-holding, Scrivener is a better app. It’s also an Editors’ Choice. Additionally, Scrivener is available on Windows (as well as macOS and iOS), but Ulysses isn’t. Both Ulysses and Scrivener are top apps for writers, but they are very different, and for that reason, I spend a fair amount of time in this review comparing them. While these two apps are quite capable for writers working in a variety of genres, screenwriters will find that Final Draft remains the industry standard for them, and thus, it’s also an Editors’ Choice.
What Is Markdown?
One of Ulysses’ signature features is the use of Markdown. It’s essentially a way to apply basic formatting to text without using menus and buttons. If you’ve ever used underscores to create italics or asterisks in to make text bold in a chat app (_like this_ or *like this*), that’s essentially Markdown.
With Markdown, you use characters to apply styling to text, and you’re limited to about two dozen options. When you export a file from Markdown to html, PDF, or any other commonly used format, the Markdown language translates cleanly into the proper style.
Ulysses and some other writing apps use Markdown because it eliminates the need for formatting menus, the kind found in word processing apps in office suites, which many writers find distracting. If you’ve ever lost an hour of writing time because you were browsing typeface options, you might give Markdown a try.
Price and Platform
The biggest change to Ulysses as of version 12 is how it’s sold. Formerly, you bought the app from the Mac App store for a one-time fee and owned it for life. Now, it’s sold as a subscription with a recurring fee. Ulysses costs $39.99 per year or $4.99 monthly. Students can apply for a discount to pay $10.99 for a six-month subscription. If you previously purchased a copy of Ulysses for Mac or iOS before version 12, you still own the old software and it should work as it always has, but you won’t get any new updates.
Ulysses offers a mobile app for iOS as well. Many writers choose software that has a companion mobile app so that they can make changes or notes directly on their writing files whenever an idea strikes. Previously, Ulysses’ iOS app sold separately from the Mac software, so you had to make two purchases for a grand total of about $70 if you wanted them both. Now, if you have a subscription to the Mac app, the iOS app is included. You download it for free, and as long as you are signed into the same Apple account with iCloud enabled on both devices, your files should sync. Note that the first sync takes some time, and new users should plan to give the apps a few minutes to initiate communication.
Almost no other writers’ apps sell via a subscription model, the exception being Adobe Story. People who use Adobe Story, however, tend to have a specific need for it, as it’s designed to be used by television and film screenwriters and the producers of their work. Adobe Story is collaborative and contains tools that relate to production-level concerns, such as shoot locations. If you’re a solo writer trying to make your first break, Adobe Story not what you need.
Other software that’s more comparable to Ulysses costs in the range of $75 to buy both the desktop app and mobile app, which are often sold separately. Storyist, for example, costs about $74 when you add the price of the iOS app to the Mac app.
Scrivener costs about $65 for both the Mac ($45) and iOS ($19.99) apps, although one benefit of using Scrivener is that you can install it on as many computers in your household as you like for no extra charge. Scrivener has an app for Windows, too. If you want to install both the Mac and Windows versions of Scrivener on your household computers, you need to buy both apps, although there is a package discount ($69.95).
Another class of apps known as “distraction-free writing apps,” costs in the $10 range, but they have less functionality. Distraction-free apps are pared down to be simpler and thus less distracting, but they also lack functionality. iA Writer and WriteRoom ($9.99) are two examples.
At the high end of the price spectrum is Final Draft ($249.99), which is what you should buy only if you’re actively working in the screenwriting business. Final Draft has an edge over these other apps in that it formats scripts to meet highly specific industry standards. Beyond simply using all capitals and center alignment where necessary, Final Draft has settings for conforming to either traditional Cole and Haag style or Warner Brothers studio format. It has an excellent range of templates, too, such as a one for a Dramatists Guild Musical, a half-hour sitcom, a one-hour TV drama, and even a few for different types of graphic novels.
Key Features and Structure
Put head-to-head against Scrivener, Ulysses offers a completely different experience. To be perfectly blunt, Ulysses has a lovely interface, and Scrivener is ugly. The other key differences are 1) Scrivener is available on Windows and 2) Ulysses is sold as a subscription.
When you launch Ulysses for the first time, you had better set aside a good 15 minutes to read the bulk of the tutorials, because otherwise you won’t know how to access many of the app’s capabilities, including the cheat sheet of Markdown characters, which surfaces by way of a keyboard shortcut. To be fair, there is a toolbar option for it, too, but if you’re new to Markdown and see the toolbar without any sort of preface about what it is, you’ll be completely lost. That’s the flip side of minimalism.
With Scrivener, you get an interface that puts function over form. Buttons are explicit. Menus and toolbars are not restrained in the least. You quickly understand that you’ll have a wealth of formatting tools at your disposal, because even the tutorial content uses two different serif typefaces. Is it all a bunch of interface clutter, or is it a series of signposts that make the app easy to learn to use? The answer depends on your preferences.
Both Ulysses and Scriver have a library on the left side. The library is nothing more than a visual list of all the files you create. Files can be nested into a larger group. You could set it up so that you have a book, and within the book are parts, and within the parts are chapters. Or you could have a film, and within the film acts, and within the acts are scenes. Alternatively, you could have one enormous file that is a single work.
The benefit of having a library, however, is that you can easily rearrange files by dragging and dropping them. For example, if you are working on a screenplay and decide that a certain scene should appear before another, you merely move the file to a new position in your library. There’s no cutting and pasting of text necessary. It’s worth noting that most writers’ apps have a library, although some distraction-free apps do not.
Ulysses gives you filters for organizing your writing. Filters operate like tags (the language of writing apps is a little different from that of other productivity apps). Applying filters to sheets that are within the same group lets you sort them later. For example, let’s say I’m writing a novel told from multiple characters’ points of view. I might create a filter for each narrator’s name so that I can quickly see all the parts of the story as told by a certain person. Or say I’m writing a book that includes a lot of foreshadowing. I might create a filter about every element that’s foreshadowed so I can quickly find and reread the appropriate earlier chapters while working on the later ones.
Design and View Modes
When apps are spartan in their design, little touches go a long way. For every project or sheet you create in Ulysses, you can choose a custom icon to appear alongside it. A goal tracker, which keeps tabs on whether you’re hitting your desired word or character count for a sheet, changes color from blue to green to red as you creep toward it, hit it, and exceed it. When looking at the library of your work, you see a little colored dot indicating the goal status for every sheet that has one.
The panel that contains the goal setting has a few more tools, such as a place to store notes, images, and keywords. You can view or hide this information panel at any time while writing.
Many writing apps have some kind of “focus mode,” in which your active writing file fills the entire screen, and everything else disappears so that you can focus on the words on the page. When you enter Full Screen mode in Ulysses, you see only your active sheet on a dark background. All other elements of your computer interface vanish. In the upper right corner, however, there’s that small colored dot again indicating your goal status. Click it, and the panel appears, so that you can reference your notes without flipping back to your normal desktop view. This design allows writers to stay focused while still giving them access to essential information they may need to write.
Scrivener has a similar feature, Composition Mode, that sweeps you into a view of only your active sheet. But by sliding a dark-light adjuster, you can choose to see as much of the desktop as you want. Drop your cursor to the bottom of the screen, and a toolbar with more viewing options appears. Are these options useful or distracting? Again, it depends on your preferences and writing habits.
Another view option in Ulysses called Typewriter Mode locks the active line at the top, bottom, or center of the active window so that you don’t have to scroll while you’re composing. Typewriter mode is commonly found in other writing apps, too, including Focused, Byword, and iA Writer. In Ulysses, the Typewriter Mode also has settings for illuminating only the active line, sentence, or paragraph in full brightness, while all the other text becomes darkened.
Getting your precious words out of an app and into the proper format for sending to editors, publishers, or agents is of the utmost importance. The Preview function lets you see a sample page of your document in a few different export styles before it compiles and generates the file. Some of the styles use bigger fonts than others. Some use color. Some include your notes and annotations. What you choose to generate will depend on who’s receiving it. I really like the Ulysses gives you an option to check how it’s going to look before it spits out a PDF.
As mentioned, Ulysses doesn’t hold your hand or coach you in any way. It’s up to you to figure out how to use the app. That’s not the case with Scrivener. I don’t want to overstate how much structure Scrivener offers, but you do get templates for different kinds of writing projects, such as novels, novels with parts, short stories, works of nonfiction, BBC taped dramas for radio, screenplays (with export support for Final Draft), and others. These templates provide a small amount of structure and guidance for people who need it.
As mentioned, Final Draft has a wealth of templates for a variety of genres, but the app really remains positioned for screenwriters. Another app, Script Studio, provides sample scripts, such as Die Hard and Good Will Hunting, in lieu of templates, and throws in a complimentary glossary of terms for writers, too.
With Ulysses, you can find templates online to import or make your own, but it takes work, and it isn’t obvious that you can do it, much less how you would.
Ulysses lets you upload and store image files, whether to use in your work or for more general research or character development. In previous versions, you couldn’t actually see the images in preview in the editing window, but as of version 12 you can… sort of. The images are rendered as thumbnails and are shown in grayscale, with the thought that it would be less distracting that way. It isn’t ideal, of course, for writers who are referencing the color of charts, graphs, or even photographs.
While Ulysses does support file uploads, it doesn’t support audio files. Scrivener does. There are other little things that could be better, such as more ability to customize how much interface clutter you actually want to see. For example, in any group, you can pull up statistics regarding how many sheets it contains. I’d like to see the sheet count right in the library list, all the time, but it’s not an option.
From testing other writing apps, I’ve run across few novel features that aren’t mind-blowing but that some writers might see as little perks, and which aren’t offered in Ulysses. In iA Writer, for example, a syntax button lets you see in color-coding different parts of speech, such as all your verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. That would be a fantastic tool for writers trying to improve their writing in specific ways. Scrivener has a neat split-screen view, which divides the active window in half horizontally to show a mirror view of your file. That way, you can edit one part of the file in the top window while reviewing the rest of the text in the second window. A unique aspect of the Mac-only app Focused is that it contains a selection of lyric-free soundscapes and white noise tracks to play while working.
The Best Mac App for Distraction-Free Writing
Ulysses is the Editors’ Choice among Mac-only writing apps, and specifically for those who want a distraction-free experience. If you prefer a bevy of tools, templates, and WYSIWYG formatting, however, you’re better off with Scrivener, which is also an Editors’ Choice.